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Monday, January 27, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: G is for GRAMMAR

I JUST FINISHED READING WHAT I CONSIDERED TO BE a good story from the On Spec slush pile. I liked it enough to pass it along to the other editors in spite of its one jarring problem – the grammar. Reading it was like being distracted by nacho bits in a friend’s teeth while he’s telling you about his great trip to Mexico. You want to listen, but you wish he would brush. If he did, the story would be so much better.

Like dental hygiene, grammar counts. If I end up buying that grammar-challenged story, the writer is in for a lot of work.

Here are my biggest grammar peeves. I'm not saying all of them were in that one story, but a lot of them were:

1). Its/It’s confusion: it’s takes the place of it is. Its is the possessive form. “It’s a great day here on the Mexican Riviera,” is correct. “The beer donkey swished it’s tail,” isn’t.
2). He/Him, She/Her, You/Your confusion: he, she, and you are subjects of sentences. They can also function as the subjects of the latter half of a compound sentence or in clauses. Him/Her/Your are objects of sentences. This sentence, “Barb downed her shot of tequila, than Ann and her quickly followed,” should read, “Barb downed her shot of tequila, and then she and Ann knocked back two more.”
3). Than/Then: in the sentence above, the writer uses ‘than’ wrong. Then makes reference to things happening in time. Than is used as a comparison as in, “He was happier than a worm in mescal.”
4). Capitalizing the verb following quotation marks in dialogue. This is wrong: “What happened to your bathing suit?” Asked Susan. This is correct: “You can't go into the pool like that,” said Susan, OR “I didn't know this was a nude beach,” Susan said, blushing redder than a hot tamale. Susan is a proper noun, so it must be capitalized. Because ‘said’ is the verb within the sentence, there is no need to capitalize it.
5). And while I’m on the subject of Susan, Diane, Ann, or Barb…. This isn’t a grammar issue, just a weird issue. I always wonder if a writer is trying to butter me up when he uses my name in a story. As if the thinking is I’m likely to buy his story because there's a psychological impact if I see my name in print. Sorry. I'm not that easy to manipulate. (Hint: try offering jewelry or expensive scotch.)
6). Numbers: if you’re mentioning a number of things, the general rule is to write them out, as in twenty pesos, or one hundred American dollars. If the number is in the millions or higher, combine the written and the numerical in this way: 17 million turistas. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but seeing prose with 20 what-nots or 100 thingamajigs is jarring.
7). Maybe/may be confusion: maybe means perhaps, as in, “Maybe I will go snorkeling.” May be refers to possibility, as in, “It may be a bad idea if I spend too much time drinking piña coladas at the swim-up bar.” (I’m getting ready to go to Cancun, mid-February. Can you tell? It may be that you can, but maybe you can’t.)
8). Subject/verb confusion within connecting phrases: the leading phrase determines the singularity or plurality of the following connecting phrase. This is wrong: “The plate of guacamole and chips disappeared, as they always do.” This is correct: “The plate of guacamole and chips disappeared, as it always does.” Plate is singular, so the secondary phrase needs to reflect that.

Mexico aside, the following are my favorite grammar books. If you’re not sure of your grammar, I suggest you invest in them:
  • The Elements of Style, Updated 2011 Edition by Strunk, William, Strunk Jr., William and William Strunk
  • Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, Style, Usage and Grammar by Anne Stilman
  • English Grammar for Dummies by Geraldine Woods
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
  • (and if you’re submitting work to Canadian presses) The Canadian Style, A Guide to Writing and Editing by Dundurn Press Limited
Hasta la vista, chicos. Until next time.

3 comments:

  1. 1. As a copy editor, I LOVE this kind of post and it makes me want to list my writing bugbears. The plate of chips singular/plural distinction is one of my favourites .

    2. I am dismayed there is no "add Scotch" option on the electronic submission form. :)

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  2. David, if you want to make a list of your own grammar bugbears/peeves, I'd be happy to post it here. As for the 'add Scotch' option, it's more fun to save that one for cons. :-)

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  3. You can blame Word for 99% of the capitalized verbs. And backwards apostrophes in words like 'cause and 'em. And more backwards apostrophes after two hyphens or an M-dash: "Look out--"

    I could go on and on and on and on...

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